The Taste of Things To Come

My take on it is that over the past two years there has been a  building buzz in wine circles about whether or not the high alcohol, big, juicy, soft wines have run their course. I’m hearing more and more people take the "run its course" position. Even more have fessed up to really tiring of this style of wine that’s been building for the past decade and a half. I can’t help but wonder if this rising concern will lead to a diminishing of the phenomenon itself.

I think it will. But that makes no difference. What would make a difference is if the "anti-big" feelings started busting out into the non-wine geek world. When this starts happening it’s only a matter of time before the people singing this "anti-big tune don’t turn out to work in the wine industry and aren’t card-carrying wine enthusiasts. They’re the folks who buy most of the wine.

I see signs this is starting.

Just today Forbes On-line runs an Elin McCoy story on high alcohol wines. Darrel Corti at Corti Brothers in Sacramento, California just came of the high alcohol closet with a fairly loud announcement that his revered wine store and deli will be looking to put only 14% alcohol or less wines no his shelf.

If that’s not enough, let me relay a personal anecdote. Last week I was in a gourmet market that has a wonderful wine selection. I’m browsing and two women with a cart stop in front of the Pinot Noir section. They’ve got about four cases of really good beer in their cart. Lady 1 says to her partner, "we have to have at least a couple of bottles of wine."

Right away I know she’s not  a wine geek because members of our club would never utter those words.

Lady 2 picks up a Russian River Valley Pinot, looks at it then hands it to her friend and says, "I think I’ve had this. It has a nice label!" Lady 1 takes the Pinot Looks at it and says, "No, look, it’s 14% alcohol.That’s too high."

What!!??  Too high? Hell, that’s down right modest….She didn’t think so.

Now, this isn’t proof or even  positive indication of anything really.  But when you put all this together with the knowledge that this high alcohol meme seems to have worked its way across the wine trade, the only place it can go is outside the wine trade. I think it’s starting too.

What if vintners did start to react to this and concerned themselves with making lower alcohol wines? The problem is they may not be able to. There are a lot of obstacles in place.

Dan Berger in his newsletter Vintage Experiences today also wrote about high alcohol wines. He identifies five things that have conspired to support the high alcohol trend:

1. Replanting after phylloxera and using Vertical Shoot Positioning trellising which increases sugars
2. The Use of Super Yeasts
3. Global Warming
4. Longer Hangtime
5. The desire among winemakers to make more impactful, richer and softer wines.

It’s easy enough to transition away from the Super efficient yeasts. And you can’t do anything about Global Warming next vintage. It might be an effort also to transition to a different trellising system, but it can be done.

The  problem is going to be how to get lower alcohol’s without shortening the hangtime and how are you going to control what might be an inevitable hint of "green" from the slightly less ripe grapes?

I can probably count on both my hands the times in the past decade I heard a reviewer, winemaker, wine marketer or writer praise a "green" or under-ripe element in a wine:

"It has a touch of green, bell pepper quality, but the solid, rich fruit overcomes it and integrates it nicely into the wine"

This is just about as kind as they get. And, I don’t see a sudden appreciation of "green" coming down the pike anytime soon. So what are they going to do about that.

Given the institutional biases in place, it would be akin to asking a crack addict to "move away from the rock" to ask California winemakers to "accept a little green" in their wine.

What winemakers who want to  break the habit are going to have to do is use technology until industry-induced cravings for "pure fruit" slowly go away. That could take a while. We’re not just talking about a little heroin addiction or nicotine habit. We’re talking about the kind of dependency that takes over lives regularly: making a living and supporting a family.

These winemakers who have adopted high alcohol winemaking have made lots of friends among consumers and sold lots of wine to folks who have found a good friend in soft, unctuous, creamy Merlot. At every level, from $5 to $100, there are herds of folks who look at this style of wine and believe this is how great wine is made. They probably think this is how all wine is to be made. And they just keep coming back for more—and bringing friends with them.

But…If the masses start thinking alcohol could be lower and the wine would still taste good, then some of them will slowly change their ways. And they are starting to think it,  I think.

This is a slow cyclical process that naturally goes slower as more and more people adopt wine. It’s harder to move the tastes of a larger group than it is a smaller group. So the cycling through styles will go slower too. White Zinfandel took off when there were fewer wine drinkers in the market. But as the market for wine drinkers grew, the move away from White Zin happened much more slowly than the adoption.

The move away from High Alcohol will be even slower.

What will be truly interesting will be to see what emerges on the other other side.  It won’t be austere. But it won’t be the California Cabs of the 60s and 70s either,  when alcohols ran in the 12.0s to 12.8s normally. We are going to get some sort of synthesis. I’m not convinced that the American palate will spend much time on "vegital" flavors. It doesn’t seem to be a direction we’ve ever gone in on the path to what’s palatable. I think instead our palates are more likely to embrace elements of bitter, but perhaps only the soft edge of bitter.

That style of wine (ripe fruit, good acid, a hint of the flavors from the bitter palate and moderate alcohol) would suit me just fine.

Of course this all begs the question, if American’s are just fine with high alcohol, creamy, big wines then what’s the problem?? Leave it be.

Wine is just like fashion. The fashion designers and those who work in the world of fashion just can’t help themselves: They must set the trends and dictate the styles. Like fashion, wine is a world built on aesthetics. It’s about pleasure, personal expression, extravagance, and disposable income. Bottom line: Wine, like art, fashion, film making and music, is art. For centuries it has been the artists and their crew that sets the artistic trends. It’s something about the nature of a person who places greater than average emphasis on unnecessary and extravagant pursuits of pleasure by working around it or focusing on it that makes them comfortable with dictating taste.

That’s the problem. We can’t help ourselves but tell others what to drink. If all goes well, we’ll be telling others to drink more moderately alcoholic wines. And for the record, I see nothing at all wrong with that attitude. Why shouldn’t it be the folks who really care about wine to be the ones who help dictate what kind of wine they will generally have easy access to?


Take the leap….

8 Responses

  1. Fredric Koeppel - July 13, 2007

    what we need is another movie, like “Sideways,” except in this one the guy won’t hate merlot and love pinot noir but will hate high alcohol wines and love moderately alcoholic wines. All it will take is the guy in the movie saying a few times, “Man, I HATE these fucking high alcohol wines,” and the tide will turn.

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  3. Mike - July 13, 2007

    I really don’t like to tell people what wines they should drink, other than they should drink those wines that please them.
    Oh, and I do listen to Sparky Marquis, of MollyDooker, when he talks about his high alcohol wines.
    “People are always asking me, When should I drink this wine? How long should I cellar it?” “And you know what I say to them? I’m making another one next year! When should you drink it? How long will it take you to find a corkscrew?!! Or now that we’re going screwcaps, How long will it take you to get a glass?!!”

  4. Anneliese - July 15, 2007

    I like AC/DC and I like James Taylor. Miner’s Benedetto Cab is spot-on for some occasions, but my favorite 11% Prosecco does the job nicely for other days.
    Perhaps there’ll be latitude for a variety of percents – instead of a single trend?

  5. Mark Finley - July 18, 2007

    Anneliese is right on. I don’t mind bruisers when it comes to Syrahs and Zins but I’ve had it when the Cabs are made like that. Which is why when it comes to Cabs, I pay attention to what Berger recommends and not what Parker or Laube recommend.

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